By Marc Pitzke in New York
The suicide bomber came out of nowhere. Before Sergeant Ty Ziegel knew what was happening, a powerful explosion rocked the truck he was riding in. The marine was immediately caught in a ball of fire. "I was rolling around on the bed of a truck, yelling the whole time I was conscious," Ziegel related to the London Times. "The guy next to me kept putting me out -- I guess I kept relighting."
That was in December 2004 at the settlement of al-Qaim on the Iraq-Syria border. The heat burned the skin off of his head -- he lost an eye, an arm and three fingers from his other hand. For months he was in a coma, and after more than 50 operations, he received a plastic cap for his skull and his face was surgically reconstructed with holes for his missing ears and nose.
But when he finally woke up, Ziegel's fiancée Renée Kline was at his bedside. In October 2006, they got married. Ziegel, his face hardly recognizable as such, stood at the altar in full dress uniform. The wedding photo, taken by Nina Berman for People Magazine, later won a World Press Photo award.
The image, called "Marine Wedding" is now part of a moving photo exhibition that runs through the first week of September in the Jen Bekman Gallery, located in New York's SoHo neighborhood. Nina Berman travelled all over the US to make the images, all portraits of wounded Iraq veterans. And the results say more than any political debate ever could.
"I seek them out in their hometowns, after they have been discharged from military hospitals," Berman says in a statement on the gallery's Web site. "I photograph them alone, mainly in their rooms, which to me feel like little cages. I strip them of patriotic colors and heroic postures. I see them alienated and dispossessed, left empty-handed amid dreams of glory and escape."
The exhibit is called "Purple Hearts," named after the medal given to those wounded or killed in battle -- although not all of the veterans shown in the exhibit have received one. Like Specialist Luis Calderon, 22, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since being crushed by the collapse of a concrete wall in Baghdad. "I feel like I deserve one," Calderon says, referring to the medal. "It would make me more confident that I really did something."
Calderon's comment is displayed on the caption accompanying his portrait -- though it is one of the few in the exhibition that shows any bitterness at all. Most have no political tinge at all, instead imparting isolation and a feeling of loss. Many of the veterans miss their time in service, despite their horrible wounds.
"We had a good time," reports Seageant Joseph Mosner, 35, who lost his scalp and the left side of his face to a bomb. "We made it fun. After we got hit, we'd give each other high fives and laugh about it." Private First Class Randall Clunen, 19, tells a similar story. "I liked it. The excitement. The adrenaline. Never knowing what's going to happen."
Even Specialist Sam Ross, 21 -- who was seriously injured in a Baghdad bomb blast and now lives alone in a trailer in Western Pennsylvania -- doesn't lament his fate. "I lost my leg just below the knee. Lost my eyesight. I have shrapnel in pretty much every part of my body. Got my finger blown off. It don't work right. I had a hole blown through my right leg. You know, not really anything major. I get headaches.
"And my left ear, it don't work either. I don't have any regrets. It was the best experience of my life."
For his part, though, Corporal Tyson Johnson III is bitter. Following a mortar attack resulting in massive internal injuries, the 22-year-old is now completely disabled. Nevertheless, he has to pay back a $2,999 signing bonus he got when he joined the National Guard. "I'm burning on the inside," he says. "I'm burning."
Berman, for her part, found the experience of photographing the veterans profoundly moving. "Meeting so many severely disabled young men and women was deeply disturbing to me," she says. "I felt complicit because they had fought in my name. And I felt the divide of privilege because I did not have to make a similar sacrifice."
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